It is a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Andrew Franklin and Matt Vianello are sitting on a brown suede couch in the former man’s living room. The Big Brother Thunder and the MasterBlasters members are officially gathered to discuss their next show, but for the moment they are more interested in quoting lines from Adam Sandler movies and planning Halloween costumes. Across from them, Franklin’s girlfriend Jessica Bellomo sits on another couch with Stormy, Franklin’s black lab. Stormy is fast asleep, nuzzled against Bellomo’s leg.
Spirits are high, which is important: About three months ago, Franklin was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. The bassist is no stranger to a tough battle — as a seasoned firefighter, he has nine years of experience running into burning buildings and otherwise placing himself in dangerous situations. This disease may be the biggest challenge he has faced, but he says it will take more than cancer to strip him of his positive attitude.
“This is uncomfortable, but it could always be worse,” he says. “I guess that I’m thankful for my career choice, because it’s shown me that people live everyday with much worse problems than I have. I’ve got an immediate circle of people who are there for me before I even ask for help.”
This Saturday night, Franklin’s friends and family from St. Louis and beyond will join him at the Old Rock House for a benefit concert featuring sets from Blank Generation, Thunder Biscuit Orchestra, Mathias and the Pirates, Illphonics, Love Jones, and of course, Big Brother Thunder and the MasterBlasters. The show will get started at 8 p.m. and run late into the night, with raffles, silent auctions and music from DJ Mahf between sets. In addition to helping to pay Franklin’s medical bills, a portion of the money raised will be donated to bile duct cancer research.
Since he was diagnosed, performing music has become harder and harder for Franklin. Lately, he has struggled to join in on backup vocals and dance around like he used to, but he hasn’t let it keep him off the stage completely.
“I’ve stopped performing in other bands to save my energy for our band,” Franklin says. “I still write for some other bands that I was playing in, but I don’t have all the mental capacity that I used to. So it comes down to the things that are most important. Obviously our band comes first.”
Franklin was only eleven years old when he started sneaking into concerts. By the time he was thirteen he was playing gigs of his own at small clubs around the Delmar Loop. Looking back, he doesn’t think he really had a choice: He feels he was destined to be a musician. Before he was born, his dad had managed and worked in music clubs around St. Louis, including a stint at BB’s alongside John May. He eventually left that life behind to become a firefighter and fight for civil rights in the department, but he never stopped spinning Miles Davis and George Duke records around the house.
Music runs in Franklin’s mom’s blood too. Her parents both were professional musicians, playing in orchestras in New York. Still, nobody in the young man's life ever pressured Franklin to pick up an instrument. Nobody ever had to.
“Whether I was at my grandparents' house, or wherever I went, there was always just so much music,” he says. “It affected me. It’s the same as growing up around a parent that’s a die-hard Cardinals fan or something. Do you really have a choice to not know who Ozzie Smith was?”
Franklin played saxophone in high school, but during his junior year, he was kicked out of the school jazz band for playing too progressively. The next year, partially as a joke, he rejoined the band on bass.
By the end of that year, he had been kicked out once again. On his way out, the school music teacher told him that he would never be good enough to play in that band, let alone any other. Franklin didn’t let the insult bring him down. Now he shares bills with the likes of the legendary Chuck Berry.
Even on his worst of days, when the pain is so excruciating that it’s a struggle to get up off the couch, he still does everything that he can to stay positive.
“I’m not trying to put the cart before the horse or anything like that,” he says. “I can’t control everything, but I can control my positivity levels — making sure I take my prescriptions the way I’m supposed to, trying to eat more, doing what I can to stay happy.
“I tend to be my most decent when I’m around decent people, and the shittiest when I’m around shitty people,” he continues. “Just keep being good to each other. The past year that’s all I’ve been trying to do — to be better to people”
“Isn’t that the line from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?” Vianello interjects with a smile. “It’s something like that, like, ‘Be awesome to each other.”
“I’ve seen it but I cant remember,” Bellomo responds.
Franklin laughs as he remembers a Will Ferrell quote from Semi-Pro. “Lets just say, ‘E-L-E. Everybody love everybody.’”
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